Fascinating New Report on Recruiting and Retaining Civil Legal Aid Attorneys in California

The Legal Aid Association of California has released a report, Shaping the Future of Justice: Effective Recruitment and Retention of Civil Legal Aid Attorneys, which looks at the challenges that legal services programs have confronted (even pre-recession) in trying to hire and keep junior lawyers.  The main hurdles, no surprise, are low salaries and high educational debt loads maintained by recent law grads.  In preparing the report, Kelly Carmody – a friend of the PSLawNet Blog – and her colleagues did some impressive research via surveys, individual interviews, and focus groups.  Here’s some of the information offered in the report’s Executive Summary:

  • “The median entry level salary [for civil legal aid attorneys in California] is $46,000, and more than half of the attorneys have salaries of less than $50,000 after more than three years in legal aid.”
  • “One half of the legal aid attorneys think they will leave their current employment in the next three years.”  [The top reason cited by attorneys surveyed on why they may leave is “financial pressure due to low salary.”

And here are a couple of telling quotes from civil legal aid attorneys:

If I was not married, I would have to live with my parents.

I have been an attorney for almost 10 years.  I was offered a position at the public defender’s office which would have paid me three times what I make now.

There’s a lot of disturbing news in the report.  And it’s important to remember that the initiative to produce this report was begun pre-recession, at a time when IOLTA law changes in California left the legal aid community anticipating that their funding would actually be boosted.  That, as it turns out, was not to be, as the recession has presented severe fiscal challenges for most legal aid organizations.  They may not be in a position now to take institutional steps toward raising salaries and developing retention programs, but we applaud the California legal aid community for keeping its eye on this very severe problem.  Hemorrhaging junior attorneys who can’t afford to remain on legal aid career paths is a potentially terrible problem for the legal aid community.  Attrition leads to immediate financial inefficiencies when organizations lose attorneys they’ve invested time and money in training.  And in the longer run, there will be no next generation of experienced leaders to assume management responsibilities if they are hopping off the ladder while still on the lower rungs.

Recession or no recession, the report should be a wake-up call for those who have a stake in cultivating the next generation of legal aid leaders.

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